The generosity of gardeners, comrades of the spade
A gardener finds that her favorite activity is filled with generous acts of communication and sharing.
Two decades ago, when I worked as a magazine editor, I received a telephone call from George B. Park Jr. That’s the George Park, as in Park Seeds. The call reminded me of what a generous group gardeners are, a characteristic that seems worth pointing out in this season of giving.Skip to next paragraph
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I’ve always had good success buying seeds and plants through the mail. The selection and service are first-rate, and the baker’s dozen is commonplace. This time, however, I had written Park Seed and a dozen other companies not to place orders but to ask questions about bush beans. I was unknown to these people, yet their responses were as hospitable as if I were the prodigal daughter, finally found and fully forgiven.
Rob Johnson of Johnny’s Selected Seeds sent me a handwritten letter. He didn’t carry any of the beans I was growing, yet he provided information about five of the six varieties. Harris Seeds and Burpee replied, detailing the varieties in their inventories and even gave sources for the types they didn’t sell. Vesey’s Seeds regretted that they sold none of my varieties, though they had trialed two of them in their Prince Edward Island garden. If I had more questions, I should write, they said. “We are always willing to help you out as much as we can.”
Garden generosity isn’t new, of course. In 1735, the Englishman Peter Collinson wrote his friend John Custis, the Virginian with whom he exchanged seeds and plants: “I think there is no Greater pleasure than to be Communicative and oblige others...Wee Brothers of the Spade find it very necessary to share. . . .”
Wee Sisters do, too.
Garden writing, also, is all about being “communicative,” about sharing ideas and experiences, collaborating. “I merely wish to talk to you on paper,” Mrs. E.W. Earle begins "Pot-Pourii From a Surrey Garden."
Gardening is personal. And the best garden writers — like the best gardeners — are opinionated people. While willing to share horticultural secrets and help solve horticultural mysteries, we can be cranky and prejudiced. We may do things in distinct ways, we may not like the same plants or the same color combinations, but we are comrades of the spade.
Moreover, most gardeners are as generous with their praise as with their criticism. One reader, for instance, wrote to tell me that I erred, that Anna Comstock’s "Handbook of Nature-Study" was written in 1911, not 1939. Then she softened her censure, explaining that the book was also one of her favorites, that she had discovered it when a college student, and that she was delighted to see me refer to it.
Another gardener, a man in his 90s, wrote that “I liked your article, but I was amazed to read that your bleeding-hearts don’t self-sow. Mine do — I bought them at the Woolworth store in the 1930s. You’re welcome to a sample. Come and help yourself,” he added, giving me directions to his house. “Go on in through the side gate — I won’t be home — and dig up whatever you see that you don’t have. I will like thinking of my plants growing in your garden.”